Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

Ominous events throw two families together and off-balance in this captivating, thought-provoking novel.

Rumaan Alam (Rich and Pretty; That Kind of Mother) thrills and unsettles with Leave the World Behind, a novel about family and other relationships, getting what’s desired and reactions in the face of crisis.

The story begins mid-road trip, a white family of four on their way from the city to their vacation rental. Amanda is an account director in advertising, Clay an English professor; Archie is 15, Rose 13. They have an apartment in Brooklyn (“really Cobble Hill”) and a mid-range sedan somewhere between luxurious and bohemian. “The life they had was perfect,” Amanda frequently reflects, and yet they are jealous of their well-appointed Airbnb, its idealized decor and the imagined lives of its owners. The four of them enjoy the house, the pool, the beach. Their vacation is perfect if a little boring, like the family. Alam’s narrative and descriptions are gorgeously detailed and impeccably paced, so that this is a story for readers to sink into, effortless and comfortable, even sumptuous. Until a knock comes at the door.

Ruth and G.H. are the owners of the vacation home, and the arrival of the older couple in the middle of the night is disturbing enough, but their story is stranger: a blackout in New York City, fear driving them out into the country, invading the family’s perfect getaway. Amanda is suspicious. Unexpectedly, Ruth and G.H. are Black. Amanda wonders if it wouldn’t make more sense for them to clean this beautiful house, rather than own it.

The almost entirely undefined external situation–the reported blackout, loss of cell and Internet services, televisions reduced to blank blue screens–forces the four adults and two teenagers together and holds them there, a delicious narrative device that leaves them simmering. The resulting tension touches on generational differences, gender dynamics, class and race–Clay and Amanda are self-conscious of their faux-benign racism, and the story serves subtly as a criticism of social norms. There is a note of the locked-room mystery and heaps of foreboding. Readers gets meticulous details of Amanda’s grocery shopping and the vacation home’s furnishings, but the extent and nature of the outside threat is delivered in mere hints. “Some people got sick, because that was their constitution. Others listened and realized how little they understood about the world.”

Leave the World Behind is pitch-perfect in atmosphere, easy to read and deceptive in the high polish of its setting. Alam has crafted a deeply bewitching and disquieting masterpiece.


This review originally ran in the September 4, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 green porcelain lamps.

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

On South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation, local enforcer Virgil Wounded Horse is faced with a challenging and personal case.


David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s first novel, Winter Counts, is a gripping story of crime investigation set on the Lakota Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Virgil Wounded Horse is cynical. He can’t imagine not living on the rez, but he’s more than skeptical of Indian spirituality and ritual, and doesn’t feel very connected to his people; his memories of being bullied in school are too fresh. Now that both his parents and his sister are dead, he doesn’t have much family to feel loyal to–but he is devoted to his orphaned nephew, Nathan, now a teenager who shares his home.

Virgil makes his living as a private enforcer. Tribal police have very limited powers, and the feds don’t bother with much on the reservation short of murder, so the Lakota often resort to hiring someone like Virgil to deliver vigilante justice. Now he gets to beat up his former bullies, and earn a few bucks doing so. It’s not necessarily work to take pride in, though, especially in the eyes of his ex-girlfriend’s politically powerful family. So Virgil is surprised when her father, a tribal council member, asks for his help. And he’s even more surprised when the case brings Marie back into his life.

It seems a local small-time pot dealer might be moving up into dealing heroin on the reservation. And when Nathan accidentally overdoses, it all becomes very real, with high stakes. Virgil will end up traveling all over the rez and down to Denver to try to track this latest crime wave. The scope of the case quickly grows beyond this private enforcer’s comfort zone, and he has a renewed romance to manage, while trying to keep Nathan safe at the same time. Out-of-town gangs, heavy hitters and hard drugs challenge Virgil’s skills. To keep all these threads together, he may need to reconnect with his Native roots, after all.

While Weiden’s prose is serviceable, his sympathetic characters and gripping plot keep readers engaged. Action and suspense are special strengths, and Weiden, himself a member of the Lakota nation, brings valuable perspective to the lives and experiences of his characters. The setting of Winter Counts offers an important and overlooked glimpse at the particular challenges faced by Native Americans, especially concerning crime and justice. But make no mistake: at the heart of this crime novel is a fight for the future of Rosebud Reservation and the lives of Virgil, Nathan, Marie and many more for whom this place is home. Tightly paced, compelling, realistic and deeply felt, Winter Counts offers a fresh take on the crime thriller.


This review originally ran in the July 30, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 glasses of Shasta.

No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Short Stories by Lee Child

All the Reacher short stories! I thought I could take this one in chunks, but no: I stayed up later than I should have to rush through the whole thing, as per usual. I loved it.

I’d read “Second Son” before, but I was glad at another chance. It’s definitely one of those that requires a suspension of disbelief, as Reacher at (I think) thirteen is just a slightly smaller version of himself: badass, a fighter, and very clever. He solves two mysteries for the MPs, which seems a bit unrealistic, although also an excellent backstory for a later MP.

I’d also read “Small Wars,” but I doubted my memory of the ending, which made it fun again. There is an element almost of a Poirot-style detective in Reacher’s intuition, his ability to take scattered facts and build a whole story out of them.

Some of these stories star Reacher in adulthood, in his post-military rambling stage, which is when most of the novels are also set, and some see him still in the Army. But we also have several instances of teenaged Reacher. These are fun for me, although they make that mistake, as mentioned above, of treating younger Reacher as a miniature (still very large) version of adult Reacher. Whatever; it’s a departure from realism, but the Reacher corpus is not about hyper-realism. “Everyone Talks” is told from the first-person perspective of a character who’s not Reacher, and according to my memory, that’s unique. I appreciated the variety, being a bit outside his own perspective. By contrast with longer stories of 40+ pages (“High Heat” runs over 70), some of these stories are very short, almost vignettes, and might serve as character studies of Reacher himself: what does a guy like this do in a particular situation, that sort of thing. He’s a problem solver, he’s a hero, he’s an eccentric, he does the right thing. He’s a romantic, and a sexual creature, and he uses his fists, but with a code.

As a collection, I think No Middle Name is an excellent addition to the Reacher world, satisfying fans’ desires both for plot, storytelling, and action, and the Reacher character himself. (Also the odd romance or sex, which I think is a well-established if secondary element.) Longer, more involved stories come earlier in the collection; it wraps with several shorter ones. The final story, “The Picture of the Lonely Diner” (reference to the Hopper painting), felt like the perfect closer. Again, I thought short stories might help me take smaller sips of the fiction I love, but I ended up binging as usual, so consider that a warning of sorts. Possibly a good entry point for a curious reader. Certainly, a great read for the established fan.


Rating: 8 lines of adult dialog.

Past Tense by Lee Child

I was having a bad day and hit a couple of not-great books in a row, so I checked this one out from my local library and sat back. It’s a wonderful system, to get that ebook on my Kindle in minutes. Fixed my day right up.

Even a mediocre Reacher novel is a fun time, but this is one of the better ones: a real joy ride. Past Tense sees Reacher leaving Maine and aiming for San Diego, more or less, as winter approaches. Why not the beach and some warm weather? But of course he doesn’t make it that far. Instead he takes a spontaneous turn toward Laconia, New Hampshire, because he knows that name: it’s where his father is from. Stan Reacher, who never talked much about his past, whose origins Reacher has never visited before. So why not? And when he gets to Laconia and goes looking for the old homestead – property records and all – thinking he’ll cruise by and see it from the curb at least – the records are dodgy. Where did Stan Reacher hail from, really, exactly?

Also, being Reacher, he gets himself into a scuffle or two right off the bat. First, he’s awakened at 3 a.m. by a cocktail waitress being assaulted in an alley, which he fixes for her, with the result that some people come looking for revenge. Secondly – but that’s a longer story. There’s also a parallel storyline going on with some unrelated characters off in the nearby woods.

This novel (the 29th published, called #23 in the series) has everything I love about a Reacher thriller: hand-to-hand combat, with clever internal monologue; intrigue and fast guesses; front of brain versus back of brain; some great Reacher family history; fascinating twists and surprises; and for a refreshing change, romance that isn’t just about a thin, hot, young woman having sex with our favorite hero. The collision of the two storylines is pretty neat, too. I like that I can see it coming but not precisely how it’ll come. I loved the ending. This is classic stuff here, Lee Child more or less at his best. On the one hand, I can see the caricature pretty clearly at this point – I don’t know if Child’s writing has gotten more over-the-top or if it’s just my having read a few dozen of them. I don’t really mind, but it does require some suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, I am always pleased when a mystery/thriller (especially from an author I know so well) can surprise me, and this one did.

I’m still a huge fan.


Rating: 8 quad-bikes.

The Midnight Line by Lee Child

I read these nearly 400 pages in a single sitting, because that’s how compelling I continue to find Jack Reacher.

At the conclusion of another brief love affair, Reacher takes a bus out of Milwaukee, and gets out to stretch his legs at a comfort stop in a small Wisconsin town. In the window of a pawn shop, he spots a West Point class ring from 2005. It’s tiny; its owner must have been female, and small. He’s bothered: graduating West Point, as a diminutive woman, in 2005 – and whatever might have come afterward in Iraq or Afghanistan – would have been hard, meaningful. She shouldn’t have pawned her ring. Being Reacher, he doesn’t get back on his bus, but instead follows the ring’s tracks backward, through South Dakota into Wyoming.

He liked Wyoming. For its heroic geography, and its heroic climate. And its emptiness. It was the size of the United Kingdom, but it had fewer people in it than Louisville, Kentucky. The Census Bureau called most of it uninhabited. What people there were tended to be straightforward and pleasant. They were happy to leave a person alone.

Reacher country.

Being Reacher, again, he gets into scuffles along the way – in Wisconsin, in South Dakota, in Wyoming – and makes alliances: a retired FBI agent turned PI; a wealthy young woman with a mystery to solve. This installment in the series is satisfying in some of the usual ways. There are brawls and matches of wits, random trivia and landscapes and local color. There is rather less sex than in some Reacher novels (but not none). That last I didn’t mind; I was getting a little sick of Reacher getting laid in the same fashion and with the same type of woman over and over. I’d encourage Lee Child to keep exploring Reacher’s options in this regard. (Although now I have to lobby someone different, don’t I. Fingers crossed for the new guard.) And this time, there are cowboys. Mostly the retired, drug-addicted kind.

I found everything I wanted in this read, which was escapism; action; and the comfort of returning to an old favorite. I’m glad there are still a handful of Reacher books left (written by Child alone) for me to snuggle into.


Rating: 7 hikes uphill.

movie: Frequency (2000)

Another firefighter flick. (I can’t remember where I got this list.)

As the movie opens, Dennis Quaid is a hunky firefighter, Frank, in 1960s Queens. He has a good marriage with Julia, and a six-year-old son, John. Flash-forward some 30 years, and John (Jim Caviezel) has grown up to be a cop. He’s close to his mother. They both mourn his long-dead father.

Until the return of the rare (especially in NYC) aurora borealis, which shows up in both 1969 and 1999, coinciding with adult John’s discovery of his father’s old HAM radio. In a sci-fi twist, this allows Frank and adult John to talk to each other across the years. (There is mention of string theory and multiple dimensions to lend this mystery a touch of possibility.) It takes a bit of convincing, especially for Frank, to believe what’s happening, but the play-by-play John is able to give of the 1969 World Series (the Amazing Mets) clinches it. (That World Series will continue to signify throughout the movie.) You can guess what comes next: John is able to warn his father about the warehouse fire in which the latter dies. Now he doesn’t die. Hooray! Except… cue the butterfly effect.

Frank’s survival gives John a whole new set of memories in which his father was there for his adolescence and young adulthood. He’s kept the other memories, too: “I remember both. At the same time. It’s like waking up from a dream and you’re not sure what’s real. I remember you being here, but I also remember when you weren’t.” And now, of course, things start changing in John’s present. His girlfriend doesn’t know him. His mother is not at the phone number he has for her. John the homicide detective gets a new case that matches an old case, and the news just keeps getting worse. He and Frank, across the years and via nightly talks on the HAM radio, undertake to catch a serial killer, but as Frank points out, he’s a firefighter, not a cop. It’s possible that whatever they try will make things worse.

This movie is kind of sappy, but I quite loved it. Seeing the father and the son be open and emotional with each other was darling, actually, even if a bit cheesy. Frequency‘s plot is not unfamiliar (think elements of Back to the Future, Sixth Sense, Ghost, It’s a Wonderful Life), and it uses some fairly transparent tools to manipulate my emotions, but I’m here for it: with a little willing suspension of disbelief, the tension was convincing, and the plot twists intriguing. There’s a bad guy, and there are a couple of clear good guys, and enough disturbance to put them in danger along the way. Most importantly, there are compelling relationships, and maybe that’s key to my enjoyment here. I found a user review on IMDB that says it perfectly: “There have certainly been better action/suspense/serial killer movies (the action scenes weren’t amazing, the story has some holes, and I thought the ending was a little cheesy), but the heart of the film is the relationship between Frank and John. I bought into that relationship fully, and that’s why I liked this film as much as I did.” Well put, UnclePaul.

Solidly worth the time. Also Dennis Quaid is hunky.


Rating: 7 cigarettes.

Tiamat’s Wrath by James S. A. Corey (audio)

Tiamat’s Wrath is a terrific addition to the trilogy of trilogies that comprise The Expanse which, though never less than entertaining, have waxed and waned in their proximity to greatness since the publication of Leviathan’s Wake. (from Tor.com)

I concur: Tiamat’s Wrath is one of the better installments in an uneven but generally scintillating series. (Also, bonus at Tor.com: I learned a new word in the author bio. “Niall Alexander is the manager of an extra-curricular education centre, and also, increasingly occasionally, a reader and a writer. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.” I love learning new words.)

Several decades after the end of Persepolis Rising, James Holden remains a prisoner of High Consul Winston Duarte, emperor of all the known worlds. Chrisjen Avasarala has recently died. Naomi lives in isolation in a shipping container, surrounded by tech, where she plays an important advisory role in the Resistance but rarely sees another human. Bobbie captains the captured ship Storm (also Resistance), with Alex as her pilot. Clarissa is no more (see previous book); Amos went on a high-stakes mission years ago, deep in enemy territory, and has never been heard from again. It’s a very somber opening.

Our beloved central characters are getting gray, but those living are still fighting, in their various ways, dispersed across galaxies. Aside from the core, we see Elvi Ocoye return (from Cibola Burn), performing on Duarte’s scientific team but having already, by the time this book begins, figured out she’s on the wrong team. And a new addition to the perspectives that tell this story is Teresa Duarte, the High Consul’s only child, at fourteen his protégé and, well, a teenager pushed to rebel.

A little hint here: it helps to have read The Churn before this book.

The science seems to matter a little more here than usual, or maybe it’s just that it makes more sense? At any rate, I was able (and motivated) to follow it more than I’ve been in a couple of books, and I found that rewarding. One relevant detail is that Duarte has been made immortal by protomolecule technology and with the help of sociopath Dr. Cortázar. But one thing about poorly understood technologies is that you don’t always know what you’ve signed up for.

My engagement with the science part of the science fiction helped me enjoy this book even a bit more than usual. But even more so, I think the plot and the action were at their best. And still more, separating our characters out into their own mini-stories (something that doesn’t always reengage fans, ahem, The Walking Dead) – with only Alex and Bobbie remaining a team – was a great choice here, in my opinion. We got to see each protagonist take on their own challenges, make their own choices, redefine their own values and belief systems. Naomi, in particular, had to expand her self-conception in the best of ways. I love love loved seeing everybody operate on their own, against a bare background if you will.

Our team – the Rocinante‘s crew, even if she’s in long-term storage – experiences surprising losses and surprising gains in this book. We are heading into the final novel of the series from here. I already feel a sense of loss that it will be over (although there are still several novellas and short stories for me to track down). But I also feel like the massive scale, physical, narrative, and moral, that have been undertaken by this series is being honored here in the penultimate installment, and that feels good. Boy, I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

Fan til the end here, me.


Rating: 8 whining dogs.

Gods of Risk by James S. A. Corey (audio)

Another novella in The Expanse series, this one only glancingly including one of our main characters. David Draper is sixteen years old, a gifted chemistry student working long hours in the lab waiting to find out what career/study path he’ll be placed on next. He’s also gotten himself involved with some less savory types, manufacturing illicit drugs in his spare lab time, for spending money but even more for the connections and sense of belonging. One connection he makes will end up getting him into a boatload of trouble, of course. And when things really get serious, surely you can guess who will be there: his Aunt Bobbie, who’s mostly been present in his life as an annoyance, hanging out in his house watching the news feed and lifting weights. (This novella falls between the timelines of Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate.)

Gods of Risk is not one of Corey’s greatest works, but it’s an absorbing short tale, and it was amusing to see Bobbie through the eyes of someone who doesn’t know how to value her. I listened to the whole thing (read by Erik Davies, but less annoyingly than usual) on the way to and from a bike ride, in a single day, and it held my attention; it’s not much of a contribution to the larger world of The Expanse, but that’s okay. David is a convincing teenager, making poor choices and underestimating certain adults, worshiping the wrong gods, if you will; but his heart is essentially in the right place, as a (slightly over-sappy) final talk with Aunt Bobbie points out. This novella also gives us a bit more background into one of the Martian worlds. Worth the time? Of course! if you’re a completist series fan like me. I’m glad for every bit of this world that I can get, as I head into the eighth novel (for now, the last full-length edition in the series).


Rating: 7 issues with mass transit.

The Churn by James S. A. Corey (audio)

Holy smokes, this is the one I’ve been looking for through all these episodes in the world of The Expanse: Amos’s backstory! I’m super excited.

This audiobook was read not by Jefferson Mays but by that other guy, Erik Davies, whom you recall I did not appreciate in Cibola Burn. He did the same plodding job here, but it’s to the credit of The Churn that I didn’t even care. (Also, he got Amos’s voice right so that it was recognizable, even under – slight spoiler – a different name.)

We are back in Baltimore, and Amos (under a different name) is just “a boy,” although quite a big, strong one – a young man, I’d say, although if his age is ever given, I missed it. He’s got a new job in a criminal organization; he’s just feeling his way, although it’s clear from the start that his calm comfort with violence is already a feature. Also that amiable, puzzling smile. This is the origin story I’ve been wanting all along, although I still have some questions about his sex life.

“The Churn” refers to a cycle of violence where the security forces crack down on the criminal element; things get crazy for a while, but they’ll cycle back to the status quo. This “churn” is only different in that it offers Amos a vital choice that will propel him (pretty literally) into space, and start that other career that eventually leads him to the Rocinante. It also introduces Lydia, whose memory we see again in Nemesis Games. It reveals much, but never quite enough, because I love Amos.

I don’t want to give any more away here. If you are remotely a fan, make The Churn a top priority. Don’t wait.


Rating: 9 bites of ginger beef.

Persepolis Rising by James S. A. Corey (audio)

Book seven in The Expanse!

Jim and Naomi and the crew of the Rocinante – Amos, Alex, Bobbie, and Clarissa – are aging. With the expansion of the known world(s), Earth and Mars are no longer the superpowers that they once were. The Transport Union, composed of those who were once known as Belters, are more or less in control of the 1,300 new worlds in the Ring System. Much has changed. But much has not changed: like human nature, the will to rule. And James Holden hasn’t changed much, in his drive to get involved in sticky situations, his need to do the right thing at all costs, and his tendency to dive blindly in. On the other hand, maybe he’s changed more than we think: early in this novel, Naomi is able to talk him into retirement, which quite catches me off guard. (The Roci‘s crew less so. They’ve been seeing him age all these years, when I just took a short break since book six.) Retirement doesn’t mean that Jim and Naomi will be any less involved in the next major historical event, however.

In this episode, a military superpower invades Medina Station, and the Roci‘s crew ends up working with former OPA factions as part of a small resistance band. Amos is asked to practice diplomacy; we can imagine how well that goes over. Perhaps I’ll leave my plot summary there.

Alex and Bobbie have become fast friends over the years, closer than ever, and the same goes for Amos and Clarissa. Neither of these alliances is romantic, but both are almost mystically deep, and one will rupture before this story is over. Naomi and Jim have a heartwarmingly constant romance, but old problems still plague, and certain practicalities are left up in the air. In other words, like all the others before it, Persepolis Rising is about people above all else. I admire Corey’s gifts: not only mind-expanding (ha) world-building, but the ability to follow this world through over many decades (not to mention the past centuries that brought us here). This volume broadens my sense of what is possible for this series, while also limiting it: if our core characters die, is there any Expanse left?

In this book perhaps more than some others, I zoned out on the technical details. I really don’t care, and am happy to just trust that people can be in places when the story says they can be, etc. Was there more of that stuff than usual, or was it just the effect of a very long drive (West Virginia to Texas) that let me drift off? No matter; I enjoyed the overall effect – that human story – as much as ever, and I’m quite looking forward to finding out what happens in the end. I’m also worried. I think book eight is recognized as the last one. There are just a few more novellas to track down; and then what? (Things don’t look good for Holden, in this light.)

I’m rambling now. These books thrill me, and I am entirely converted to the concept of sci fi, if done this way: people first.


Rating: 7 bombs.
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